A View from the CT Foxhole: Brigadier Rob Stephenson, Deputy Commander, NATO Special Operations Headquarters.

AuthorLoertscher, Seth

Brigadier Rob Stephenson is currently the Deputy Commander of NATO Special Operations Headquarters, a role he has filled since August 2018 while also serving as Acting Commander from January 29 to October 15, 2021. During his career, he has deployed on numerous operational tours in Northern Ireland under Op BANNER and also on various overseas operations both with the Parachute Regiment and with other units including to Bosnia, North Macedonia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. As a staff officer, he has fulfilled a variety of roles within the U.K.'s Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In 2009, Brigadier Stephenson was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his unit command appointment, which included operational deployments to Afghanistan and North Africa. He commissioned into The Parachute Regiment in 1987. Brigadier Stephenson holds a master's degree in defence studies from Kings College London.

Editor's Note: James Garrison is an alum of the Downing Scholars program at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point who serves as the Commander's Aide de Camp at NATO Special Operations Headquarters.

CTC: NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) was established in 2010, though its predecessor organization--the NATO Special Operations Coordination Center (NSCC)--was established in 2007. (1) Can you talk a little bit about the development of the command and the role that it was created to fill?

Stephenson: Absolutely. Where we have come from in the past is relevant to where we are going in the future. The NATO SOF Coordination Center was built around a demand signal that came from operations being conducted in Afghanistan as part of the NATO response to 9/11. There was no shortage of willing Allies to get involved in that operation, but from a SOF perspective, there was a lack of common standards and common procedures. Across the NATO Alliance, there wasn't a shared understanding of what capabilities should be defined as SOF capabilities or what should define a unit as being able to deliver SOF-type effects. It's important to bear in mind that for many NATO members, the creation of their special operations forces was a relatively new thing. The NSCC, which was initially driven through the initiative of Admiral [William] McRaven, then the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, was intended to create a structure that would bring more coherence to the Allied SOF pipeline, which was principally going into Afghanistan.

That evolved over time into NATO Special Operations Headquarters, which had a broader remit, and broadened its capabilities specifically in terms of establishing the NATO Special Operations School (NSOS). The NSOS enabled us to deliver more coherence for training. Some of that training was niche, bespoke tactical training that was relevant to operations in Afghanistan, such as courses for technical exploitation. Most of the NSOS training, however, was orientated towards command and staff training. The procedures for operating in a multinational headquarters in Afghanistan were completely new to people, whether it was at the unit level operating inside the overarching NATO SOF framework or at the component level. The command and staff training was structured to deliver interoperability so that when Allied SOF went over to Afghanistan they were able to support whatever constructs might be in place.

Over time, the Allied SOF pipeline has become somewhat self-sustaining. We're in the process of evolving and changing our function here but also changing what the requirement for Allied SOF is to support [NATO's response to] a new type of threat in the future. One important thing that we've been able to do at NSHQ is to create an enduring NATO standard of doctrine for the SOF domain: essentially, our headquarters has become the custodian for SOF doctrine within NATO. We have a team here that not only writes the doctrine but engages with the Allies and seeks their input in updating it. I think that was one of the key outputs of the early days--developing a common standard of doctrine which gives people the ability to do their own development, based on a unified direction of travel.

CTC: NSHQ has a unique mission involving both the development of SOF and, to some extent, the employment of Allied SOF. Could you speak about these dual responsibilities and the command's current priorities?

Stephenson: Absolutely. One point I wanted to raise is that although we are the NATO Special Operations Headquarters, we tend not to use the term 'NATO SOF' because it's really the SOF of NATO countries. NATO SOF only comes together during an operation brought together under a NATO C2 [command and control] structure, otherwise it's the SOF of the Alliance or Allied SOF.

As far as supporting the development of Allied SOF, in addition to maintaining or updating SOF doctrine and the courses that we deliver, we also try to provide a forum or a mechanism for sharing lessons. Some of that is a formal, structured process, but we also have a pretty well-connected network across the Alliance that we can use to bring people together, either formally or informally, to share best practices from their own operational experiences, be that national activity or activity they're doing in other coalitions or NATO operations. We continue to build both the common standards and common knowledge across the network.

What we have found recently is that while there [have] been some valuable lessons from Afghanistan, we now see a different requirement. Some of this is, in a way, going back to the future. Although we're not necessarily in a Cold War scenario from a NATO perspective, we do see that there is a different challenge in terms of threats, which I think are relevant for the Alliance. What we are doing in this context, in addition to writing the doctrine and supporting the training, is getting involved in the wider NATO planning process as it grapples with the challenges of a resurgent Russia, but also accepts, that for the Alliance, the threat from terrorist groups is going to persist, and potentially even grow. So, we're involved in this planning process, which gives us the opportunity to feed into the larger NATO system, our perspective of how SOF could contribute to NATO's objectives in the future. That, in turn, helps us engage with the Allies to not only make sure what they're doing is recognized by and useful to the Alliance, but also allows us to feed back a demand signal to them to make sure that their continued development [of SOF] has a broader justification than what they had previously done in Afghanistan. It's important for some of the Allies to have a NATO demand signal as a justification for SOF to provide a different set of capabilities for the future. It's not the same for everybody, but there are certain nations within the Alliance who rely very heavily on a very clear demand signal from NATO to set their own defense programs. There's been an incredible growth in SOF capability driven by the post-9/11 era and the requirements to support operations. At the same time, I think there is a real danger that for some nations, without a clear demand signal from NATO or other organizations, those capabilities will somewhat wither on the vine.

With regard to the employment of Allied SOF, NSHQ plays two roles. First, we provide the SOF domain advice to the SACEUR [Supreme Allied Commander Europe]. The commander of NSHQ is not only the NATO SOF Headquarters commander, but he's also double hatted as SACEUR's SOFAD [SOF Advisor]. So, we have the responsibility of providing SOF advice to the various parts of the NATO Command Structure, either throughout its peacetime vigilance activities or as it considers preparing for a NATO operation. We have a role to play in shaping what is realistic in terms of the outputs SOF can deliver. We have a role to play in engaging with the Alliance to see who has the right capability, who is at the right readiness, who might be available to support a NATO operation. Second, we currently play a significant role in enabling what's known as the SOF component of the NRF, the NATO Response Force, which is a rotational structure where Allies volunteer to be on high readiness to respond to a NATO operation. At the moment, much of our effort goes toward enabling the readiness of the NRF's SOF component. It's important to note that, were the NRF's SOF component actually employed, NSHQ wouldn't provide C2. The Allied SOF would form the backbone of the command and then would fall under whatever joint force headquarters was running the operation.

To answer the last part of your question, as we think about our key priorities we ask ourselves: How do we keep that network going? How do we look to build capabilities across the Alliance which can tackle both the threat from Russia and an enduring threat from terrorist groups? How do we ensure that, not only do the capabilities continue to develop, but they remain as interoperable as possible? Not only across the SOF of the Alliance, but how do we integrate the SOF capability into the wider components within NATO as we develop NATO plans, particularly for collective defense of Europe? This is a really significant opportunity in NATO because it's the first time for decades that NATO has readdressed these plans. So, how do we keep that capability building in the right direction, keep that interoperability, maintain that network and those key parties?

CTC: As you alluded to, one of the central functions of NSHQ is to increase the cooperation between...

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